The validity of Quentin Tarantino’s tics as a filmmaker have long been debated, perhaps to the point of realisation that those tics shouldn’t really be subject to debate. They’re subject to taste. While it might be unfair to abridge a filmmaker’s qualities, extreme graphic violence, hyper-stylistic dialogue and anachronistic music are arguably the three central hallmarks of what makes Tarantino’s films his own. His best films are the ones that weave those elements into the story seamlessly and appropriately. His weakest films are the ones in which those elements protrude from his otherwise measured filmmaking.
Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s legacy. It was also the film that established his film literacy and his ability to combine independent cinematic thought into one coherent whole. He found influences in film noir, Spaghetti Westerns, American Westerns, French New Wave, exploitation cinema, to name but a few of the periods of film history that have governed Tarantino’s sense of filmmaking. His two Kill Bill films might have been the apex of that pursuit of collage but Tarantino has never again been so able to fluidly draw on other cinema as he did in Pulp Fiction.
The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s latest film and it’s undeniably the logical progression of his filmography; its roots are more ingrained in Spaghetti Western idiosyncrasies than even Django Unchained. The self-indulgence in terms of running time and the impressive sense of atmosphere are undoubtedly a product of Tarantino’s love of Sergio Leone. It’s snow rather than dirt that saturates the landscape of The Hateful Eight but the tracks of Leone and Corbucci are barely covered. Tarantino has always had a remarkable comprehension of cinema past but only in recent years has his own filmmaking begun to demonstrate a sense of classicism in its pace and measuredness. The first half of The Hateful Eight, in which very little happens, indicates a real appreciation for establishing mood and tension on Tarantino’s part.
But he is betrayed by his inability to shed himself. Tarantino spends a lot of time in The Hateful Eight setting up a film that ought not include extreme graphic violence, hyper-stylistic dialogue and anachronistic music and then fills it with extreme graphic violence, hyper-stylistic dialogue and anachronistic music. Ennio Morrione, who wrote the wonderful original score for this movie, mentioned of Tarantino after the release of Django Unchained that the filmmaker uses music in his films without a sense of coherence. It’s a foible that extends itself beyond the music that Tarantino uses to the dialogue and violence. His hallmarks as a filmmaker become distracting, detracting and forced when handled anything less than expertly. But this is Quentin Tarantino and it’s doubtful there’s little onscreen that isn’t as he’d envisioned. It’s not a matter of debate but a matter of taste. As the man himself once said, “You don’t go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down.”
And yet that volume in style diminishes the impact of everything else on screen. The characters in The Hateful Eight are memorable but thin and the film ultimately spirals into an exercise in guessing who will kill and who will be killed. There’s more to the Western genre than blood and Morricone music, but that’s something Tarantino has never understood. His characters may have the quips but they don’t have the soul of the Clint Eastwoods or Eli Wallachs or Gian Maria Volontès or Lee Van Cleefs. Those actors inhabited characters that were ruthless but appealing. There’s nothing appealing about the character in The Hateful Eight.
The story of The Hateful Eight focuses on eight central figures; bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), quiet cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and mysterious Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir). There’s also a stage coach driver, OB (James Parks), who occupies as much screen time as most of the others but either he wasn’t deemed hateful enough or ‘The Hateful Nine’ didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Much of the action takes place within the confines of a lonely outpost called Minnie’s Haberdashery, in which the eight central characters independently unite and subsequently come into conflict. The film was photographed in 65mm, using the rare Ultra Panavision 70 and the Kodak VISION film stock, a curious choice considering it is Tarantino’s most spatially confined film since Reservoir Dogs. The brief moments of scope, featuring striking photography of the American wilderness, are wonderfully realised.
Tarantino is a loud filmmaker although aversion to the way in which he generally conveys that loudness doesn’t necessarily mean aversion to loudness in cinema in general. Perhaps his loudest quality is the way he depicts violence. It’s also the least interesting thing about him as a filmmaker. The things that made Tarantino’s films his own not only used to be executed more coherently, they also used to have more of a point. There’s nothing wrong with violence in cinema, just as there’s nothing wrong with heightened dialogue or abstract music choices, but when the purpose isn’t clear it’s thoughtless filmmaking. And Tarantino is a filmmaker with an extraordinary capacity for thought.
The Hateful Eight is an exhibition of everything that Quentin Tarantino has become over the past two decades. It’s self-indulgent, flawed and sometimes wonderful. It’s the result of extraordinary talent combined with unbridled creative freedom, something that Tarantino appears to have enjoyed for an enormous percentage of his career. There’s a sentiment that Tarantino himself has sometimes recalled that filmmakers have a more creatively successful start to their career than they do to the ends of their career. Confidence can be a burden to an artist.